Sam Ulano And The Importance Of Drumming Education

July 23, 2012

Drummer, teacher, and controversial drumming icon Sam Ulano.

On August 12 of this year Sam Ulano will turn ninety-two. For those who may not know Sam, he’s been a fixture on the New York City drumming scene for more than sixty years, as a performer and teacher. Gretsch was proud to be a sponsor of an event held this past July 10 at Sam Ash Music on 48th Street in Manhattan, where the NYC drumming community came together to honor and enjoy the wit and wisdom of this drumming icon. And what did Sam do to celebrate? What else—he conducted a drum clinic.

Sam has enjoyed a long and successful career as a performer, including thousands of club dates, shows, and other gigs in the New York City area. He’s also performed or recorded with diverse artists ranging from Moondog to Johnny Lydon’s PiL. Sam has proudly played Gretsch drums since 1947—quite possibly making him the oldest and longest-running Gretsch drummer currently active. And he’s still swingin’ in NYC clubs today.

But it’s as an educator that Sam has made his mark on the national drum scene. And he’s definitely done it his own way—making him equally revered and controversial. Besides his private teaching practice, the drum studio he founded in the 1950s hosted such guest artist/instructors as Art Blakey, Max Roach, and Papa Jo Jones. Sam also had the first-ever drum-oriented cable TV program, which ran from 1975 to 1981. And he’s released literally dozens of self-produced books and CDs, along with over 2,500 pamphlets that he calls “Foldys.”

Sam’s publications are almost comically “lo-fi” in production values, but they’re nonetheless high in informational content. In what is perhaps his most controversial teaching philosophy, Sam denounces rudiments as having nothing to do with playing a drumset, since drumsets didn’t exist when the rudiments were established for marching drummers in the 1800s. Instead, Sam focuses on reading, timekeeping, and providing the foundation for a band in a musical situation. “Your hands can’t see, hear, or think,” Sam declared at his clinic. “You do that all with your brain. That’s where you learn to play the drums. And that’s the only way you’re going to be successful as a player in the music industry.”

Sam’s philosophy may not be for everyone, but it’s been enough for some pretty stellar former students including noted TV drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith, New York studio stalwart Allen Schwartzberg, and jazz great Art Taylor. These drummers—and dozens like them—have benefitted from Sam’s major premise, which is that reading is the means to success. According to Sam, drummers who can read—and who can play in many styles as a result—are more likely to get work than are drummers with great rudimental technique or blazing speed.

Another controversial recommendation from Sam is regular practicing with metal sticks to improve hand and arm strength. If metal sticks aren’t available, short lengths of copper pipe will do, as Sam demonstrated at his clinic. “If I hadn’t practiced with metal sticks all these years,” he said, “there’s no way I could still be playing at ninety-two years old.”

Admittedly, Sam has his detractors—or at least those who will debate his opinions. For example, many drummers who agree that the rudiments were originally created for marching drummers still feel that they offer a starting point for the development of technique on the drumset. Few, if any, teachers would argue Sam’s point about the importance of reading for a drummer with professional aspirations. But many would also stress the value of listening to music in order to develop an “ear” for various styles. Some teachers tend to focus on this ear training as the way to develop an authentic “feel” within any given style. I’ve heard it said more than once that “Feel can’t come from a book; it can’t come off a chart. Drummers have to bring a great feel TO the written part…or make it up themselves.”

Sam Ulano might take issue with these points…but that’s what drumming education is all about: different approaches. Sam’s approach is a practical one, based on years of working within the music business and a desire to prepare drummers for that sort of work. You can agree with his approach, or disagree, or take some of it and leave the rest. You can combine Sam’s philosophy with that of other teachers…or add in your own. But no matter what you do, you should absorb Sam’s fundamental, overriding message: You need to LEARN to play the drums. Drumming may come “naturally” to you, but to develop those natural skills you need to pursue an education on the instrument.

Fortunately, as enormous as Sam Ulano’s catalog of books, CDs, and videos is, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. The amount of educational material available today is staggering. And that’s in addition to the thousands of talented and dedicated drum teachers out there, ready to guide their students toward their individual goals. I earnestly enjoin you to seek out one or more of those teachers, and to take advantage of all that available material. No matter what your goals are as a drummer, you’ll reach them more easily and more rapidly with the help of a good drumming education.

For more information on Sam Ulano, visit For more about available educational materials on the market, do a Web search for “drum books,” “drum videos,” and “drum DVDs.” A little investigation will go a long, long way.

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